PARCC Releases Draft Policy on ELL Accommodations

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 18, 2013 4 min read
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The first of two groups of states working to design assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards today released its recommendations for the types of supports that can be used to help English-learners demonstrate their content knowledge and skills.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC—composed of 22 states—has issued its draft accommodations manual for English-language learners and students with disabilities.

In the draft policy—which PARCC will circulate for public comment through May 13—the consortia states that an accommodation considered for English-learners must meet three conditions:

•It must reduce the “linguistic load” or complexity of the language that is necessary for students to access the content in curriculum or on the assessment;
•It can’t alter what is being measured in a test item or alter the test itself;
•It has to help “address the unique linguistic and socio-cultural needs of an EL by reducing the effects of English-language skills on the student’s overall performance on the assessment.”

The policy further states that students who are currently classified as being English-learners under the criteria used by their states will be eligible to receive accommodations approved for ELLs on PARCC tests. Students whose parents have refused language support services for them would be eligible for accommodations, so long as they are classified by their district as being an ELL.

The manual urges that any decisions about accommodations for English-learners be made by more than one individual, and may include ESL and bilingual teachers, content-area teachers, guidance counselors, principals, parents, and students themselves, among others. These same decision-makers should also decide on, and assign accommodations to English-learners early in the academic year or upon enrollment and that no student should encounter an accommodation for the first time on test day.

(To catch up on the specifics for students with disabilities, read what Christina Samuels has reported over at On Special Education.)

A student’s English-language proficiency level must be a prime consideration when selecting accommodations, the PARCC policy states.

And now, to the accommodations themselves—found in Section 6 of the draft manual and rated for how effective they will be depending on where students fall on the spectrum of progress toward proficiency.

1. Word-to-word dictionaries (English to an ELL’s native language) would be allowed on both the English/language arts and mathematics tests.

2. Clarification of test directions (not test items) delivered in a student’s native language by test administrators in both ELA and math. (Test administrators would need to be fluent/literate in both languages.)

3. Test items and response options read aloud in English for the ELA/literacy assessments. (For math, this is an accessibility feature allowed for all students.)

4. Student can provide oral responses on math assessments, which would be dictated into text.

5. Extended time on both ELA and math assessments.

6. Frequent breaks during both the ELA and math assessments.

In the manual, PARCC lays out its adherence to the principles of “Universal Design” so that all test items can be made accessible to the widest possible spectrum of students without having to provide a unique accommodation.

Among the supports that the PARCC policy says all students will receive on the computer-based exams are a highlighting tool, a spell checker, and pop-up glossaries with definitions of pre-selected words that don’t provide an advantage to answering the test item.

Gabriela Uro, the manager of ELL policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools which represents 67 of the nation’s urban school systems, said that most of the recommended accommodations seem to have been developed with “a paper and pencil test in mind,” even though nearly all students will take the exams on computers. One example, she said, would be providing an accommodation on the ELA/Literacy test in which ELLs could speak their answers and have them transcribed to text, as is recommended for math.

“For kids who don’t speak English well, or who have accents, this would have to be worked out,” she said. “But it can be done. The technology is there.”

Uro said some of the draft language related to federal law and case law that is central to ELLs having equal access to education is vague and could cause confusion for states and districts. She also pointed to language in the draft that suggests that accommodations for ELLs be “individualized,” akin to how decisions are made for students with disabilities.

“How do you operationalize something like in a district like Santa Ana (Calif.) where 60 percent of the students are ELLs?” Uro said.

PARCC drew on a range of experts in what it said was a two-year long development of the draft accommodations policy.

The big outstanding question for English-learners that PARCC must still answer is whether the assessments will be translated into languages other than English. Among the PARCC states, there are some that allow translations and others that prohibit it. The group says it will have a policy on translations ready some time this summer.

The other group of states working on new assessments to measure how well students are mastering the common core—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium;will release its draft policy on accommodations in late summer or early fall.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.